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Our local looking-glass 

A new survey shows who we are and what we want for SLO County

The results are in: A new public opinion poll offers a mirror of our minds, throwing back some images that make us reflect on our community and our future.

Nearly 2000 San Luis Obispo County residents took part in an extensive survey of attitudes about our quality of life here, our housing and transportation choices, even the very air we breathe.

click to enlarge POLLING THE PUBLIC :   Robyn Letters of Opinion Studies compiled the responses of nearly 2000 SLO County locals about our quality of life and our future direction for housing, transportation, and air quality. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • POLLING THE PUBLIC : Robyn Letters of Opinion Studies compiled the responses of nearly 2000 SLO County locals about our quality of life and our future direction for housing, transportation, and air quality.
Like any community, or any family, we agree on some things and disagree on others. North County residents are the most distinct from the rest of the county: most are supportive of rural development, they don’t believe that climate change is a problem, and they’d like Highway 101 to be six lanes.

“It’s an interesting profile of our region and what we value as a community—and what the differences are too,” said Aeron Arlin Genet, an air quality specialist with the SLO County Air Pollution Control District who helped come up with some of the survey questions.

That agency combined forces with the county’s regional transportation planning agency to hire a local consultant, Robyn Letters of Opinion Studies, to carry out the opinion poll. Six hundred randomly selected local residents agreed to participate in a 20-minute phone interview in English or Spanish, considered a statistically valid sample that matches county demographics, Letters said.

Another 1335 people volunteered to complete a written version of the survey, adding an extra dimension to the results.

One of the first questions asked respondents to rate their overall quality of life in the county, on a 10-point scale. People gave high ratings, with 39 percent rating their lives as a 9 or 10, and another 44 percent giving it a 7 or 8. Only one in 20 rated their lives as 5 or less.

“It’s pretty significant that SLO County gets such a high rating,” Letters said in an interview.

People who live in the city of San Luis Obispo are most content, with nearly half of the respondents rating their quality of life a 9 or 10. South County residents are the least content, with only one-third giving their quality of life the highest ratings. Other statistically significant differences in who is the most content: women (44 percent compared to 34 percent of men), college graduates (48 percent versus 35 percent of those with an AA degree or less), people with higher incomes (54 percent versus 29 percent of those with household incomes under $75,000), people over 65 years old (54 percent compared to just a third of those 64 or younger), and homeowners (46 percent versus 26 percent of renters).

Letters pointed out, “People struggling to find jobs and make a living tend to rate their quality of life lower.”

But quality-of-life ratings all over the county have steadily declined over the last few years, she added. In Opinion Studies’ 2005 CountyTrak survey, 50 percent of respondents rated their quality of life a 9 or 10, compared to 45 percent in 2006 and 39 percent now. That’s an 11 percent decline.

click to enlarge AIR CARE :  The survey shows most people in SLO County are concerned about our air quality and are willing to take action to protect it, according to Air Pollution Control Officer Larry Allen. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • AIR CARE : The survey shows most people in SLO County are concerned about our air quality and are willing to take action to protect it, according to Air Pollution Control Officer Larry Allen.
“It’s interesting we’re seeing this decline. Any time an area is changing and in flux, people are a little unsettled and uncertain about what their lives will be like. All the talk today of recession and depression is unsettling,” said Letters.

Asked to predict how life will be in the county in five or ten years, the majority of the phone sample respondents said it will be about the same. But three in ten think life will be worse, and only 19 percent think it will be better.

Those who voluntarily filled out the survey—“reflecting perhaps the most outspoken residents of our region,” according to Letters—are even more pessimistic, with more than half saying life in the county will be worse in the future.

Their reasons for such a dire prediction: one-third blamed the county’s increasing population. Another 19 percent are concerned about the amount of development taking place, and about an equal number are also worried about worsening traffic. Other comments included “high cost of living,” “lack of affordable housing,” and “lack of jobs.”

For those who think life will be better in five or ten years, their reasons include “the county is a wonderful place to live.” These optimists see more jobs coming in, more people “with good ideas” moving in, and careful planning for development.

“I was surprised we didn’t have more people saying life will get better,” said Letters.

Asked in an open-ended question to identify the most critical issue facing the county, people had a hard time limiting their comments to just one. Most are concerned about the county’s roads, water supply, public transportation, fire and police protection, and lack of affordable housing.

But asked to rank the most important issue upon which to spend our limited resources, people countywide choose “providing quality education” and “ensuring an adequate water supply” as the highest priorities. Third- and fourth-ranked issues are “improving health care” and “protecting clean air and climate.”

Answers about where else to spend our resources reveal some different attitudes around the county. North County respondents put a high priority on reducing traffic congestion and investing in road maintenance, while North Coast residents are not concerned about these issues and instead are more worried about water supply, affordable housing, and attracting new businesses. People who live in San Luis Obispo care more about protecting our clean air and open spaces.

The biggest split is over rural development. People in the North County are generally in favor of allowing subdivisions in rural areas “away from shops, offices, schools, and public transportation,” while respondents in other parts of the county want planners to discourage those developments.

Forty percent of the growth that’s occurred in the last seven years has been outside of urban areas, according to Arlin Genet.

North County respondents are also less concerned than other residents about air quality and climate change. Countywide, 53 percent said they are “very concerned” about protecting air quality. Those most worried about air pollution are women, Hispanics, those with lower incomes, and renters.

The regional differences prompted air quality officials to ask Letters to find out more about North County attitudes, and two focus groups were convened in Paso Robles in early May to allow respondents to discuss their responses at length.

Those focus groups revealed that the majority of North County respondents do not believe that climate change is man-induced, seeing it as a natural part of climate evolution. They believe they are well informed about the issue, and resent terms like “global warming,” “carbon footprint,” and “greenhouse gas,” Letters said after the meetings, adding, “I didn’t realize that people are so resistant to the idea that climate change might be serious.”

They also don’t believe that the North County has an air pollution problem, even though air monitoring shows it often has the worst ozone smog. One in four thinks the air is cleaner than it is in other parts of the county.

One man said during the focus group session, “I could care less about air quality. I need there to be jobs here and homes that people can afford. That’s what’s important to me.”

A majority of North County respondents also perceives that the county has plenty of open space, and that “property rights” take precedence over preserving agriculture.

“We have so much open space here, it’ll be hundreds of years before this is gone,” one resident commented.

“The demographic and geographic differences in the survey results are quite fascinating,” said the county’s Air Pollution Control Officer, Larry Allen, who watched the focus groups on a video screen in an adjacent room.

“The North County has more people living in rural settings, and that engenders more independence. The focus groups showed that people are fiercely proud of where they live, and wouldn’t live anywhere else. They say people are friendlier in the North County than in other areas,” Allen added.

People throughout the county, including the North County, are willing to make some lifestyle changes to help protect our clean air. Around one third of all residents say they have already made “a lot” of changes, and another third says they have made “some” changes, including reducing car use, using compact fluorescent lightbulbs, reducing use of heating and air conditioning, unplugging electronic devices, and replacing old appliances. When these results are broken down by region, South County residents rank first, while North County residents rank last.

Asked what else they are most willing to do to reduce their personal impact on air pollution and climate change, respondents identified buying locally grown produce and locally made goods, combining errands into one trip, and donating to a tree-planting foundation.

“I’ll protect the environment all day long if it saves me money,” one North County resident commented during the focus group.

“It’s clear that cost matters. Fear is not an incentive, but saving money is,” Allen said. “The use of a motor vehicle is one of the largest impacts we have as individuals on air quality. There are many choices to reduce that use, choices that are beneficial to the economy and your health and your pocketbook. You’re doing something that makes a real difference for air pollution and climate change.”

Indeed, 78 percent of respondents around the county support the idea of planning communities that make it easier to get around by bus, biking, or walking rather than planning communities around cars. A majority also likes the idea of mixing housing types and land uses.

According to Allen, “Our development pattern has made us auto-dependent, and we have to reverse that. Sprawl is costly, for roads, emergency services, and utilities. We have to get off the fossil fuel diet.”

“We’re seeing more and more acceptance of mixed-use development. That’s encouraging. Under past planning efforts of five or ten years ago, everything was segregated, but now people are more willing to have commercial development, offices, and housing in closer proximity,” explained James Worseley, who coordinated the survey questions for the regional transportation planning agency, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments.

To reduce traffic congestion, respondents endorse the idea of encouraging employers to allow flexible schedules or satellite offices, improving local streets, and improving highways. Less than one third want to widen Highway 101, while half of respondents want to spend transportation funds on other options besides 101, such as buses, bike lanes, and local roads.

There’s one thing just about everyone agrees on, though. A whopping 94 percent of all respondents support the idea of government agencies working to provide renewable energy. Two-thirds would support those efforts even if it meant a 5 percent cost increase.

For County Supervisor Jim Patterson, the survey results underscore the “schizophrenic” nature of the Fifth District he represents, which includes voters in San Luis Obispo and the North County. As a past chairman of both the Air Pollution Control District and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments—the two sponsoring agencies of the survey—he sees the results as an important tool for planning the future of the county’s transportation network and air quality.

Patterson said he believes local residents are reporting a decline in their quality of life because of traffic congestion.

“People are getting backed up at stop signs and backed up at stop lights. That’s a direct result of development. We’re seeing the results of what’s happened over the last decade. It reaches a point where you notice it,” he said.

From his perspective, plenty of North County residents are now, in fact, concerned about increased growth. They are talking to him about the impacts of rural sprawl on water supplies in Paso Robles, he noted. City officials in Paso Robles are even working to reduce sprawl by establishing a greenbelt—or “purple belt”—to surround the city’s urban development with vineyards.

“They know that servicing residential rural development is a loser,” Patterson said.

Elected decision-makers all around the county are starting to have a regional conversation about growth, according to Patterson.

“We’re having an expanded conversation about what we need to do regionally to solve the problems that are causing the perception of the quality of life to decline,” he added.

The complete survey and all the results are posted on the air district’s website at

The best mirror, it’s been said, is an old friend, but this public opinion poll also reflects who we are in SLO County, and shines some light on where we want to go.

INFO BOX: What we think: some samples

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the overall quality of life for you and your family here in San Luis Obispo County?

—83 percent gave a 7,8,9, or 10 rating. Since 2005, quality-of-life ratings have gone down 11 percent.

In five to ten years, do you think the county will be a better place to live than it is now, a worse place to live than it is now, or about the same as it is now?

—33 percent of South County and 32 percent of North County respondents say it will be worse, compared to 25 percent in SLO and 26 percent in the North Coast.

Which is better: Plan communities that make it easier to get around by bus, biking, or walking; or plan communities that make it easier to get around by car?

—78 percent support bus, biking, walking communities.

Which is better? Encourage development of more expensive homes with large private lots, or less expensive homes with smaller yards and more shared open space?

—82 percent favor encouraging less expensive homes with smaller yards.

How concerned are you about protecting local air quality?

—53 percent are “very” concerned, while 7 percent are “not at all” concerned.

How concerned are you about global climate change?

—41 percent are “very” concerned, while 25 percent are “not at all” concerned.

New Times correspondent Kathy Johnston may be reached at



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